How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

Curious about mental health counselor jobs? The guide below is an overview of the duties, requirements and outlook for this fulfilling career.

Mental Health Counselors: What They Do and How to Become One

Mental health issues are quite common in the United States. Roughly 1 in 5 adults struggle with a mental health condition each year and 20.2 million of those also have a co-occurring substance use disorder. However, only 43% of these people received treatment in 2018. There are many more who need help, which is why mental health counselors are an incredibly important part of the health care system.

Mental health counselors are caring, patient individuals who wish to help others find and work toward emotional wellbeing. They work with people from all walks of life and enjoy helping people overcome obstacles and improve their day-to-day mental health. Most counselors have at least a master’s degree and state licensing, achieved after many hours of in-person training under professional supervision. With telehealth opportunities expanding across the nation, counselors are also using the internet to reach people in underserved areas and help close the treatment gap in those areas. 

In the following sections, you will learn more about the career path for a mental health counselor, including what counselors do, the education and experience needed and how to find employment. 

What Does a Mental Health Counselor Do?

A counselor’s duties revolve around helping individuals, as well as their families and loved ones, adopt new ways of thinking that can improve their mental health. In general, they may accomplish this through:

  • Providing advice and guidance
  • Helping create and define goals
  • Creating strategies to help improve mental wellness
  • Conducting therapy sessions
  • Referring clients to psychologists and other experts

Counselors may work in places like mental health and substance abuse centers, government agencies, schools, hospitals and family services. There are also specialized roles that mental health counselors can pursue, which may involve further education, experience or certifications.

Types of Mental Health Counselors

Common specialties for mental health counselors include:

  • Substance Abuse and Behavioral Disorder Counselors. These counselors work with people who struggle with substance use disorders or co-occurring mental health conditions.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists: These therapists focus on helping couples or families work through issues and improve communication.
  • Rehabilitation Counselors: These counselors help clients who are entering rehab facilities.
  • Social Workers: Social workers help struggling individuals with their day-to-day lives, allowing them to have a better chance of accomplishing goals.

How to Become a Mental Health Counselor

The career path of a mental health counselor requires higher education, supervised clinical hours and  state licensure. Additional certifications may also be required depending on the employer and position.

Educational and Degree Requirements

In a clinical setting, mental health counselors typically need to have a master’s degree in  mental health counseling. It generally takes five to seven years to receive both a bachelor’s and a subsequent master’s degree. 

Residency and Clinical Experience

A person typically needs to participate in an internship to earn their degree and must then work in a clinical setting before being licensed. It’s estimated that counselors complete up to 3,000 hours in a supervised clinical setting before receiving their license.

Required Certifications and Credentials 

Some employers may require certifications, particularly for counselors who specialize in a certain area of mental health. Otherwise, certifications are a way to verify a counselor’s abilities, ethics and specialties. Additional credentials are usually not required to offer online counseling locally, but a counselor must be licensed in their client’s state to treat an out-of-state client. 

State Licensure and Continuing Education

Individuals must acquire a state license to work as a mental health counselor. The requirements for receiving a license vary from state to state, but most require the counselor to have a master’s degree and a specific number of clinical hours. They must also take and pass one or more exams, the most common one being the National Clinical Mental Health Counseling Examination (NCMHCE). Counselors must complete continuing education programs each year in order to renew their licenses. The American Counseling Association has a state-by-state report of licensure requirements. 

What to Expect After Schooling and Training

After someone has completed their degree, worked their supervised clinical hours and received a state license, they can begin practicing as a mental health counselor. The next step is to find employment.

Employment Outlook for Mental Health Counselors

The demand for mental health counselors is predicted to rise by 22% by 2028. The median pay is around $44,630. Mental health counselors can work in a variety of areas, including mental health and rehab facilities, schools, hospitals, government locations and private practice. Telehealth opportunities for online counselors are also increasing, allowing counselors to work from home.

How to Find a Job

There are many places online to search for mental health counselor positions, such as at iHireMentalHealthand other job boards. Another route is to search job listings at local hospitals, rehab facilities, schools and clinical locations. Networking is also important. Their professors or school may have professional networking opportunities available. Counselors can attend or even speak at professional conferences and continuing education events to find potential employers and start to build professional relationships.

When applying, make sure to include certifications that relate to specialized roles, such as substance abuse counselor or family therapist. References from past internships can also be helpful.

Mental Health Counseling Jobs at The Recovery Village

The Recovery Village has locations across the country with open positions available for mental health counselors or clinical therapists locally at our facilities and nationally through our telehealth program. Our staff members collectively hold over 3,000 professional credentials, and our evidence-based approach to addiction treatment has earned our facilities a variety of accolades. We are accredited by The Joint Commission, a leading health care accrediting organization in the United States. View the most recent available positions at our job portal website.

How much do mental health counselors make?

Mental health counselors earn a median salary of $44,630 per year.

Is a mental health counselor a therapist?

Yes, “therapist” is an umbrella term for counselors, social workers and similar professions. Our company uses the title for these roles as Clinical Therapist.

Do you need extra credentials or schooling to become an online mental health counselor?

No, mental health counselors can work in telehealth without additional credentials. They must, however, be licensed in their client’s state to treat them.

Can you become a mental health counselor without a degree?

To work as a licensed mental health counselor, you typically need a master’s degree.

Is a behavioral health counselor the same as a mental health counselor?

Behavioral health is a specialized role for a mental health counselor, which looks at how behaviors impact health.


National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Mental Health Care Matters.” September 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020.

American Counseling Association. “Licensure Requirements For Professional […]ate By State Report.” Accessed April 10, 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, an[…]l Health Counselors.” September 4, 2019. Accessed April 10, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.